American Families are Adopting ‘Unadoptable’ Children With Down Syndrome From China

International   |   Micaiah Bilger   |   Jan 14, 2016   |   1:41PM   |   Beijing, China

China labels children with Down syndrome “unadoptable,” but 14 families have proven the country wrong.

A new adoption effort called the Bamboo Project is inspiring a growing number of families to open their homes to orphans with Down syndrome, PEOPLE magazine reports.

The project began with Desiree White, a 38-year-old pediatric nurse from Tacoma, Washington who has a heart for children with special needs. Through her career, White said she had “incredible experiences” working with children with Down syndrome.

“When I made the decision that I was going to adopt, I knew I had the skill set and the experience to take care of a child with special needs and also that children with special needs tend to wait longer for forever families,” she said.

The report continues:

White reached out to Bethany Christian Services, an international nonprofit organization founded in 1944 that provides adoption, foster care and immigrant resettlement services. As Elisabeth McGinnis, a project coordinator for Bethany Christian Services, explains, if not adopted, these children have few options.

“Some of these kids will live in an institution for all of their lives while some of them will essentially be turned out on the streets,” McGinnis tells PEOPLE.

Six months after she’d started her quest, White was matched with Isaac, who was just 11 months at the time – and one of the first children with Down syndrome ever to have an adoption file released in China. She says the fact she was going against the political status quo was of little significance to her.

“I don’t know that I paid attention to the political details,” White says. “All I knew is that my son was there and I was here and I needed to close that gap quickly.”

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Nine months after first seeing Isaac’s photo in November 2011, White traveled to Guizhou province in Southwestern China to bring him home.

“We went to this dilapidated building and this woman took us up 15 flights of stairs and then she said, ‘There’s your son,’ ” White recalls. “There he was dressed in bright green like a jolly rancher. He kind of toddled over to me and smacked me in the face – that was our first love tap.”

Because Isaac’s adoption was among the first of its kind, White was required to file reports back to China on her son’s condition. Isaac, who currently attends a neurotypical preschool, flourished in White’s care. As a result, in 2013 the Chinese government released adoption files for 14 more “unadoptable” children with Down syndrome.

Dan and Jessica Watsons from Minnesota adopted 2-year-old Emi through the Bamboo Project not long after White brought her son home.

The family said they spent five years saving money and preparing to adopt a special needs child. Then, their connection to Emi came at just the right time. Emi may not have lived long if she had stayed in the orphanage in China, the Watsons said.

About a year ago, the couple traveled to China with three or four other adoptive families seeking to adopt children with Down syndrome, but when they arrived, they quickly learned that Emi was very sick. The Watsons said they could hear Emi aspirating fluid into her lungs as they fed her a bottle.

Back home in the U.S., doctors discovered two holes in Emi’s heart and permanent lung damage from aspirating formula, the Watsons said. Several corrective surgeries and continued therapy saved the little girl’s life.

“If she hadn’t been adopted she would’ve gotten a common cold eventually and that would’ve taken her life,” her mother said. “She doesn’t know anything is medically wrong with her, she’s just a loving, funny, mischievous little girl. She gives us all a new perspective.”

In China, children with Down syndrome and other genetic disorders often are treated as disposable, rather than valuable human beings. Many are aborted or left in institutions with little care. The situation is not much different in the U.S., where about 90 percent of unborn babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted.

But thanks to families like the Whites and the Watsons and many others who are speaking out about the value of people with disabilities, there is more hope for children with Down syndrome.

“Emi has been home for one year and her story has already helped four children find families,” Jessica Watson said. “I can’t say in my life that I’ve had that big of an impact – my daughter has literally saved four people.”

Currently, the adoption agency is working to find families for 40 children in China with Down syndrome, the report states.